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March 24, 2014

Retirees' paperwork, stuck in a mine, points to government's balky IT problems

(Continued)

BOYERS, Pa. —

Morrison was told the system still relies on paper files.

"Wow," he said.

The existence of a mine full of federal paperwork is not well known: Even within the federal workforce, it is often treated as an urban legend, mythic and half-believed. "That crazy cave," said Aneesh Chopra, who served as President Obama's chief technology officer.

But the mine is real, and the process inside it belongs to a stubborn class of government problem: old breaking points, built-in mistakes that require vital bureaucracies to waste money and busy workers to waste time.

In some cases, the breaking point is caused by a vague or overcomplicated law.

In New Jersey, for instance, one researcher found that the approval process for a bridge project dragged on for years in part because officials were required to do a historic survey of all buildings within two miles and to seek comment from Indian tribes as far away as Oklahoma.

In other places, what breaks is the government's technology.

The rollout of HealthCare.gov, of course, was ruined by glitches in the website, but there are other examples: The Census Bureau had a failed experiment with hand-held computers, then reverted to paper, which cost up to $3 billion extra. The Department of Veterans Affairs had trouble with an online records system and, while they struggled with it, accumulated so much paperwork in one office that auditors feared the floor might collapse.

Obama took office with the hope that these hang-ups could be separated from Washington's endless wars over the size of government. In theory, these are problems everybody wants to fix.

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works," Obama said in his first inaugural address.

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